- Associated Press - Friday, July 1, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Officials at the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory and in the surrounding northern New Mexico town began planning Friday for the return of thousands of residents and employees as firefighters held their ground on the flank of the massive wildfire, the largest in state history.

Authorities didn’t give a timetable for when they would lift the five-day-old evacuation order for the town of Los Alamos, normally home to 12,000 residents. But some county workers were back to prepare for the eventual rush of utility service calls, as well as possible flooding from surrounding mountainsides denuded by the wildfire.

Officials also worried that flames were damaging Native American cultural sites at pueblos near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But with the fire several miles upslope from the laboratory, officials were confident the blaze no longer posed an immediate threat to the lab, where experiments on two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era B61 nuclear bombs have been put on hold.

“I anticipate that we are going to be able to bring the laboratory back up in a way that’s smooth and continues to maintain the safety and security that we’re responsible for,” Lab Director Charles McMillan said.

Joe Reinarz, a fire official who had also worked at one of the large Arizona wildfires this season, said the fire did not grow significantly on Friday and that containment lines were holding but were no guarantee.

“Everything we’ve seen this summer doesn’t indicate that an old fire is going to stop much. It’s unusually dry in the Southwest,” he said.

The challenge Friday was stopping the flames from doing more damage to the lands of Santa Clara Pueblo, about seven miles away. The fire had made a run north toward the reservation earlier this week, hitting the pueblo’s watershed and cultural sites.

Pueblo residents have been devastated by the news coming in from the front lines of the firefighting: forest resources lost and plants and animals that the pueblo’s 2,800 residents depend on gone, Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said.

“This is a fire like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “We cried when we saw Mother Nature doing what she was doing to our canyon area. We were helpless.”

The fire has blackened more than 162 square miles in the last six days, making it the largest in New Mexico history. Erratic winds and dry fuels helped it surpass a 2003 fire that took five months to burn through 94,000 acres in the Gila National Forest.

More than 1,200 firefighters were on the lines trying to slow down the flames as National Guard troops, state police officers and deputies patrolled neighborhoods and enforced evacuation orders.

Fire operations section chief Jerome Macdonald said parts of the fire in Santa Clara canyon burned hot while other areas saw less damage because of overnight temperatures and lighter winds.

Dasheno said the tribe has discussed the possibility of evacuating if the fire grew closer.

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